Transgender competitors in Ivy League spur debate
At its annual convention this January in Indianapolis, IN, the NCAA ratified a new constitution and addressed policy for transgender student-athletes, following the dominant season of Lia Thomas at the University of Pennsylvania.
Originally, the draft to this new constitution, approved on January 20, included a new provision requiring all member institutions to “comply with federal and state laws and local ordinances, including respect to gender equity, diversity and inclusion.” This addition would have placed religious schools in jeopardy of being pushed out of the NCAA if they dissented from these laws on religious grounds.
After an amendment was suggested that explicitly sought to protect religious schools, the ratified constitution offers some protection: “Consistent with the principle of institutional control, no provision in this Constitution should be construed to restrict or limit colleges and universities, public or private, from adopting or maintaining missions and policies consistent with their legal rights or obligations as institutions of high [sic] learning.”
The new constitution emphasizes diversity and inclusion. The preamble begins, “The National Collegiate Athletic Association is a voluntary, self-governing organization of four-year colleges, universities and conferences committed to the well-being and development of student-athletes, to sound academic standards and the academic success of student-athletes, and to diversity, equity and inclusion.”
Also at the convention, the NCAA Board of Governors voted to align transgender student-athlete policy with the policy of the U.S. and International Olympics Committees, which evaluates transgender policy on a sport-by-sport basis according to the national governing body of that sport.
John DeGioia, chair of the board and Georgetown University president, said in a statement, “We are steadfast in our support of transgender student-athletes and the fostering of fairness across college sports. It is important that NCAA member schools, conferences and college athletes compete in an inclusive, fair, safe and respectful environment and can move forward with a clear understanding of the new policy.”
The Rover requested comment from Dennis Brown, Assistant Vice President for News and Media Relations and Heidi Uebelhor, Associate Athletic Director of Compliance, to inquire about Notre Dame’s current policy for transgender student-athletes. Neither Brown nor Uebelhor responded to this request.
This winter, swimmer Lia Thomas posted the top times in the country in the women’s 200-yard (1:41.93, faster than the women’s NCAA gold-medal time in 2021) and 500-yard (4:34.06) freestyle events. But, ever since Thomas transitioned from the Penn men’s team to the women’s team and started dominating races with school-record times, fans, families, and teammates have all questioned the fairness of the NCAA’s rules allowing transgender women to participate in women’s sports.
Last year, Thomas sat out the season as part of the NCAA’s guidance for transgender athletes, which requires that male-to-female athletes complete one year of testosterone suppression treatment. Under the new guidance, other transgender athletes will have to complete USA Swimming’s seven-step process to change teams. Thomas’s teammate perceives USA Swimming as more resistant to allowing transgender women to compete in women’s events. She told the Daily Mail, “They have stakes in the game. These are people who swam their whole lives, who have kids and daughters who swim, and they see what this is doing to the swim community.”
While on the men’s team, Thomas was a second-team All-Ivy League selection. The times which Thomas has swum this year are only a couple of seconds slower than two years ago, prompting a number of Penn parents to write to the school, Ivy League, and NCAA, arguing that Thomas’s completion of male puberty offers an unfair advantage, even factoring in the testosterone suppression.
Penn parents wrote on December 5, in a letter obtained by the Daily Mail, “At stake here is the integrity of women’s sports. The precedent being set—one in which women do not have a protected and equitable space to compete—is a direct threat to female athletes in every sport. What are the boundaries? How is this in line with the NCAA’s commitment to providing a fair environment for student-athletes?”
The university replied, “Please know that we fully support all our swimming student-athletes and want to help our community navigate Lia’s success in the pool this winter. Penn Athletics is committed to being a welcoming and inclusive environment for all our student-athletes, coaches and staff and we hold true to that commitment today and in the future.”
John Lohn, editor-in-chief of Swimming World magazine, noted on January 18, “The suppressants she has taken account for an approximate 2% to 3% change. The time difference between male and female swimming records is roughly 11%.”
Michael Phelps compared the Penn situation to doping on CNN, saying that he does not believe he ever “competed in a clean field in [his] entire career.” Noting that the situation is complicated, Phelps emphasized that “it has to be a level playing field. That’s something that we all need. Because that’s what sports are … We should all feel comfortable with who we are in our own skin. But I think sports should be played on an even playing field.”
Thomas’s teammates have complained anonymously, for fear of being labeled “transphobic,” to various media. The locker-room environment has been “uncomfortable,” as one swimmer reported: “It’s definitely awkward because Lia still has male body parts and is still attracted to women.” Some of the swimmers have spoken to coaches about sharing a locker room with Thomas, but they “were basically told that [they] could not ostracize Lia by not having her in the locker room.” Another swimmer told the Washington Examiner, “It’s been super draining and frustrating, because no one seems to care about the actual women.”
Zef Crnkovich is a senior from Falls Church, Virginia, majoring in Classics. As a dispenser of (often accurate) hot takes, he kindly requests that you please send your hot takes to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Marc, “50m Freestyle, Heat 4 – London 2012 Olympics Swimming” – licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 License
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article had an incorrect title. It has since been changed. We apologize for any inconvenience.